Are property rights essential to prosperity and liberty? The ‘No’ case.

This is a presentation by socialist economist David McMullen at a Melbourne Argument debate at the Royal Oak Hotel, North Fitzroy, Melbourne, on February 8, 2017. His opponent was Ted Lapkin, a former adviser in the Abbott government.

Private Property Rights are Essential not only to Economic Prosperity but to Political Liberty – The No Case

February 12, 2017 via Different Wavelength

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When looking at economic prosperity and political liberty, the private property rights we are concerned about are the ownership rights of the capitalist class over the means of production or productive assets. We are not arguing about private property rights over items of consumption. So I acknowledge everyone’s right to their own toothbrush.

What I want to contend is that in the future we will get by very nicely without private ownership of the means of production. We will do this by creating a class free society where the means of production are socially rather than privately owned. This will free the economy of the many shackles placed on it by capitalism and at the same time create a society that requires the fullest political freedom for its proper functioning.This future system is generally referred to as communism.

OK why do I take this singularly unpopular position which everyone knows has been totally discredited? Well, I subscribe to the Marxist view that capitalism creates the conditions for this new more advanced system.In a nutshell, capitalism eliminates the need for the profit motive and hence the need for its own existence. It does this through the creation of modern industry and technology which open up the prospect of universal prosperity, and of robots and computers doing all the work that we really don’t want to do. Under these new conditions we can begin to imagine people working because they like what they are doing and they want to contribute, while at the same time being happy with an equal share of an increasing level of prosperity. In other words we can see social ownership having a totally different and better form of motivation than the profit motive that is associated with private ownership.

This means that what was previously impossible becomes possible.Past history already tells us that sharing poverty and laborious work is impossible. You cannot create equality under those conditions. It is a utopian dream. For example, as the Middle Ages illustrate it only requires a small band of thugs who would prefer to live off everybody else’s hard work and you end up with a very nasty class society. Also when assessing the experience of the Soviet Union, and the various regimes derived from it, it is important to keep in mind their backward economic conditions as a factor in determining how things turned out there.

Now, favorable economic conditions presently only exist in the rich countries where less than 20 per cent of the world’s people reside. What about the rest of the world? It looks like it is going to take a number of generations for them to develop. It is hard to be any more definite than that. However, I would suggest that the prospects are best if there is a healthy global economy and a willingness to provide well directed economic aid and also to offer diplomatic and military assistance to those resisting the forces of tyranny and corruption.

Anyway, why do I consider that social ownership will bring greater economic prosperity and progress? There are five reasons that strike me as being particularly important.

  1. Firstly capitalist firms cannot match the work performance that would be achieved where workers unprompted want to do the job to the best of their ability.Capitalist firms have to apply various rewards and penalties to get their employees to do their bidding. However, if a job is in any way complex it becomes difficult to correctly assess how well people are doing their job. And jobs are becoming increasingly complex so this is becoming more and more of a problem.
  2. Secondly once we get rid of private ownership and private debt we will also get rid of economic crises, stock market crashes, bank collapses and extended periods of depressions or recessions that lead to unemployment and reduced production.
  3. Thirdly we will get rid of the waste of human labor that Marx called pauperization where a large number of people are thrown on the scrap heap and survive on welfare. They are not equipped to develop work skills or they are psychologically maimed from living in this society.
  4. Fourthly, we will not have capitalism’s sluggishness in terms of what are arguably the main drivers of economic progress, namely,science, research and development, and technological innovation. There are a number of reasons for capitalism’s lack of vigor in this area. If I can beg your indulgence I will list six that I am aware of. Firstly, capitalists are not interested in major technological breakthroughs that will make their present investments less valuable or even obsolete. They just want incremental improvements that increase their value. Secondly, benefits from spending on R&D are long term but capitalists tend to have a short term perspective. Thirdly because of the public good nature of new knowledge, firms cannot capture all the benefits and so underspend on it. Fourthly, where intellectual property right laws are applied, access to knowledge is restricted. Fifthly, government funding for R&D is the first thing to go when there are government budget cuts. And also there is huge wastage as researchers game the funding system and personal prestige and career take precedence over outcomes. And sixthly, capitalism generates an anti-technology and anti-science attitude among the alienated masses. People see the modern industry created by capitalism as the problem rather than capitalism itself. We have people whose livelihood is threatened by new technologies. And there are the greenies who have a romantic view of the pre-industrial past.
  5. Now the last but by no means least on my list of capitalism’s economic problems that will be overcome under communism is what economists like to call government failure.Capitalism tolerates a lot of bureaucracy and regulation.Much of it is devoted to catering to the needs of vested interests in ways that harm the economy. Vested interest is just another term for private property. And as well as this there is of course empire building by career minded bureaucrats.

OK those are my arguments for why I think that private ownership of the means of production is a fetter on the economy. Now I want to address what I think are the two main arguments against what I’ve been saying. Firstly, we are told that social ownership would require excessive centralization and secondly that you can’t change human nature.

Economists argue that all this well-intentioned motivation would come to very little because an economy based on social ownership has an inherent economic calculation problem: in the absence of market transactions between enterprises it could not have a properly functioning price system. And as a consequence social ownership would require clumsy centralized resource allocation of the kind that existed in the Soviet Union. I am not going to speculate on how economic decisions will be made in the future under communism. However, we can say that there is nothing about the non-market transfers of custody over components from producer to user enterprises that would prevent them from making decentralized decisions based on prices. Furthermore, we could hardly do a worse job of allocating investment funds than do highly fluctuating interest rates and exchange rates produced by capitalist finance. Indeed, there are good reasons for thinking that economic decision-making would be far superior to that under capitalism. To begin with, because of the absence of ownership barriers, there would be far more scope for coordination, and less scope for secrecy and deception.

Human nature and mutual regard

Now what about human nature? A society based on social ownership requires far more than simply state ownership, although that is a prerequisite. There need to fundamental changes in people’s behavior and abilities.

The behavior change can be best summed up in the expression ‘mutual regard’.You do the right thing because you want to contribute and you know that your efforts are not futile because a large and increasing section of society is doing likewise. As well as being the basis of morality and what is considered honorable it is also enlightened self-interest. By everybody serving others we are all served. This altruism is not the self-denial that Ayn Rand made it out to be.

Many would doubt the ability of rank and file workers to do the complex kinds of work required in the future. However, I would suggest that people have greatly untapped potential. There are many ways that they are presently held back or find themselves unchallenged.

The kinds of changes we are talking about here will not happen overnight. There will have to be a transition period that will take a generation or more and is generally referred to as socialism. It will take time to totally eliminate private ownership, starting with the big fish, and it will take time to move completely away from the old capitalist work incentives. And it won’t be smooth sailing. Good behavior will only win out once the good majority gain the confidence and moral courage to stand up to those who behave badly. And there will be lots of old management types trying to run things in the old way and convincing workers that the new ways are futile. So it will be touch and go for a while and we may need more than one stab at it.

Now let’s look at political liberty

With the emergence of capitalism we have seen for the first time a degree of political liberty. We have constitutions limiting the power of government, we have elections, the separation of powers, habeas corpus. These would have been unimaginable in the Middle Ages or in any other pre-capitalist society.

The main problem however is that the capitalist system tends to abandon political liberty in times of crisis. Also a big test of political freedom is our freedom to confiscate the means of production from the capitalists and convert them into social property. In the face of a serious revolutionary movement one would expect to see states of emergency, unofficial death squads, and well-resourced propaganda campaigns spreading fascism and xenophobia.

Historical accidents

What conclusions should we draw about the lack of democracy in the so-called communist bloc countries? The Soviet Union etc? The first thing to note is that we dealing with an historical accident. By virtue of some rather specific or contingent circumstances,communists found themselves in charge in countries that with few exceptions were economically and socially backward, and totally unsuited to undertaking a communist revolution. Also, the regimes did not arise as a result of popular support for communism. In the revolutions in the Soviet Union and China the primary concern of the peasant masses was nothing more than land reform. In Eastern Europe the regimes were due to the arrival of the Soviet Red Army at the end of WWII rather than popular revolutions. So I think it is safe to say that these regimes would not have survived if they had been democratic.

However, it is important to keep in mind the alternative in most cases was right-wing tyranny rather than democracy. And of course these regimes eventually lost the minimal revolutionary content they may have originally had.So their authoritarian nature could no longer be blamed on communists. Instead we just had phonies like Vladimir Putin who pretended to be communists until the collapse of the Soviet Union and we presently have people like Xi Jinping in China who still pretend to be communists. The take-home message here is that the conditions were very different from what we would expect in the future when revolutionary regimes come to power in highly developed societies on the back of widespread support for their political program.

Freedom of speech

Now, the economist Milton Friedman famously argued that freedom of speech and the emergence of diverse political groups require the decentralization of resource ownership that only capitalism can deliver.He argued that under capitalism you have the possibility of finding a rich patron. Marx and Frederick Engels and the Bolsheviks received money from anonymous benefactors as well as from robbing banks. Under social ownership, however, resources would be centralized in the hands of the very authorities that you may want to criticize. However, I would argue that with everyone having very high disposable incomes and access to the Internet you would not have to rely on central authorities providing resources. Also I do not see any insurmountable obstacles to ensuring open access for various resources needed for a vibrant political life.

I do not want to paint too rosy a picture.A revolutionary government during its initial phase may have to declare a state of emergency if there is a rebellion by supporters of the old order. Their rebellion could take the form of civil war, terrorism and sabotage, and dealing with it will not be easy. At the same time, for success, we will need the freedom to criticize those in positions of authority when they display incompetence or lack of revolutionary politics. Bottom up supervision will be a critical part of the system. Indeed, a social system that relies on people taking the initiative without external prompting, could not function if people are not able to say what they think is wrong and what they think should be done about it.

Summing up

I will now make two points to briefly sum up.

Firstly, capitalism creates the very economic conditions required for a more advanced classless society that will be based on social ownership of the means of production.

Secondly, a primary task for the present period is ensuring economic and political progress in the more backward regions of the world. For this we need a liberal global economic order, well directed economic aid, and diplomatic and military support in fighting the battle for democracy. And critical to this is beating back the nationalist anti-globalist wind that is blowing at the moment.


The battle for democracy

David McMullen wrote a very good post last month at his new site, Different Wavelength, and has given me permission to republish it below.

Among the best sites for keeping tabs on democratic progress or otherwise are:

Freedom House

Human Rights Watch

Reporters without borders

Amnesty International

Electronic Frontiers

Transparency International

(Let me know of any that should be added to the list!)

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We have had quite a bit of progress on the democratic front in recent decades although there are still some very big and serious challenges.

Let us look first at the progress. Latin America is no longer run by military dictators and they are becoming the exception in sub-Saharan Africa. Then of course there is eastern Europe where most countries are now democracies.

However, the picture is still pretty grim when we consider the continuing extent of tyranny.

In Russia, democracy is more formality than substance and most the other states of the former Soviet Union are rather dodgy or downright nasty.

China is a police state. Dissidents are jailed. The Internet as we know it does not exist. Lots of western news sites are blocked. There is no Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. And they employ an army of censors taking down anything taboo. And by the way, North Korea only exists because of Chinese support.

Then we have the Middle East. It has more than its fair share of tyrannies and authoritarian governments. At the risk of seeming perverse, I would suggest that the present civil war in Syria could indeed be a bright spot on the democratic front. This will depend on the Western powers recognizing that their inevitable intervention can only end the civil war if it brings democracy.

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Open Letter to Oliver Stone – by Stephen Velychenko (Krytyka) 1 January 2015

Historian Stephen Velychenko penned this ‘open letter’ to US film-maker Oliver Stone on 1 January 2015. It is reprinted with permission of Krytyka, the ‘Thinking Ukraine’ website. Among other things, the letter points out that foreign involvement in regime change and revolution is nothing new and that includes the American people’s own revolution against tyranny and the Vietnamese national liberation struggle during the 1950s to the 1970s.

‘Things can turn into their opposite’ and we see this today with the various ‘anti-imperialists’ who long ago stood on the side of the people but who are now siding with the far-Right Russian chauvinist Putin’s slanders against Ukraine’s democratic struggle.

As Lenin said: “Russian Socialists who fail to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc., etc.—are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained imperialist monarchies and the imperialist bourgeoisie”. This applies not only to ‘Russian socialists’.

– C21styork


Dear Mr. Stone,

I am an academic historian who likes to think he has some knowledge of world events during the past centuries. I am someone who has watched and thought about some of your better films and who had the good fortune to have been in Kyiv on the Maidan in November-December 2013.

I was appalled and distressed when I read that a person of your stature had decided he would make a film about Ukraine’s ousted dictator Victor Ianukovich. What unsettled me was not your idea about interviewing a dictator on film. Documentaries about surviving ousted dictators are important and useful. What I found appalling was not only that you seem to share his interpretation of his fate, but that you seem to attach particular significance to that interpretation. You seem actually to believe Mr. Ianukovich who, understandably, like any overthrown dictator, attributes his fate to “outside forces” rather than to himself, his policies and supporters, domestic and foreign. Just like Mr. Ianukovich and Mr. Putin, you seem to think that the new government that emerged from the Maidan events 2013-14 is the product of CIA machinations, that CIA involvement was something exceptionally noteworthy, and, implicitly, that because this government is supposedly a CIA product, it has no merit or credibility.

Do you really believe Mr. Stone that in any of the great events in world history during the past centuries the intelligence services and spies of the great powers of the time were not involved? Simply noting this fact in isolation from all other events leads either to apologetics or conspiracy theories. Allow me to illustrate my point.

In so far as French secret agents were involved with the leaders of the American rebellion of 1776, some of whom were Masons, does that fact override the influence of enlightenment ideals and the interests and grievances of those who fought King George’s army? Did the presence of French spies and Masons in Philadelphia New York and Boston mean George Washington was part of a foreign plot? Does the British government’s support for Greek nationalists in the 1820s mean their anti-Turkish revolt was merely a British plot? In so far as Spanish, French and German agents supported Irish leaders in their wars against the English government, does that mean that those who fought British troops in the name of Irish independence were dupes in foreign plots? Was the 1916 Easter Rising really a failed German plot? In so far as German intelligence supported and financed the Bolsheviks in 1917-1918, does that mean the Russian revolution was simply a German plot and that those opposed to the tsar had no legitimate interests or grievances? Did covert Russian and Chinese support for Vietnam mean a sizeable proportion of the Vietnamese people had no legitimate grievances against French or American rule and that their decades long war against those governments was merely a KGB plot?

I put it to you Mr. Stone that anyone who produces a film focusing only on the participation of one particular secret service in a given event merely creates cheap propaganda – in this instance of the kind that will benefit Mr. Putin and his dictatorship. At this point, I should perhaps add that, like many others, I have a critical view of the US government and US corporations. I am well aware of the work of analysts like Chalmers Johnson, Richard Barnet, William Greider, Naomi Klein, Gregg Palast, Will Hutton, Michael Hudson, Thomas Frank and Arianna Huffington. But I am among those who do not allow their critical view of the US and corporate power to blind them to the reality of Stalinist or Putinist Russia.

In so far as I am familiar with your films they do not suggest any knowledge of or previous work on eastern Europe or Russia, let alone Ukraine on your part. This is not surprising as for many Americans, even today, Ukraine still remains a “part of Russia”, a place “far away of which we know little.” But once one decides to undertake a project related to that part of the world such intellectual indifference is no longer acceptable. Allow me therefore take the liberty to suggest that you not limit any research you might undertake to Mr. Ianukovich, his cronies and Russian advisors. Might I suggest you at least peruse Karen Dawisha’s recent book Putin’s Kleptocracy (2013) and some of Andrew Wilson’s and Timothy Snyder’s books on Ukraine.

I hope that, at this early stage, your first thoughts about your possible film on Ianukovich and his rule have been misinterpreted or misunderstood and that my remarks prove unnecessary and irrelevant. But, in as much as you do seem interested at this point in a documentary film about one of the great events of post war Europe, I hope that you will record not only the activities of the CIA in that event. I trust you will also record the role of Putin’s FSB in bringing Ianukovich to power in 2010, in controlling his government thereafter, and in the events of 2013-14. Since Mr. Putin’s government has obviously given you a visa and permission to visit Mr. Ianukovich in Russia, dare one imagine your hosts might also oblige you with access to FSB files about FSB activities?

In any case, I trust that any film you might make on Ukraine will pay due attention to the interests and grievances of Ukrainians, who, like their eastern European counterparts demonstrated in 1989, do not want to be ruled by pro-Kremlin elites and are now again, as in 1917-22, fighting a Russian invasion to prove it. I would also hope that if a director of your repute did make a documentary film about Ukraine it would not simply parrot the ideas of a reviled ousted dictator who built fortified fairy-land palaces with gold toilets in a country foul with corruption private wealth and public squalor. I would hope such a film explain that Ukrainians want no more to be controlled by Russia or Russian controlled dictators, than Latin American and Asian peoples want to be controlled by America or American controlled dictators.

Respectfully yours

Stephen Velychenko


Contradictions of the post-Assad Regime in Syria’s protracted anti-fascist war – ‘The revolution is the negation of the regime and Daesh is the negation of the revolution’.

The following analysis of Syria, from a left-wing perspective of support for the anti-fascist democratic revolution there, is republished with permission from the site Democratic Revolution, Syria style. “The revolution is the negation of the regime and Daesh is the negation of the revolution”. It was published there on 1 August 2014.

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The Leviathan built by Hafez al-Assad, a fascist state stretching from Daraa in the west of Syria to Deir Ezzor in the east, has been shattered irrevocably by thepopular upsurge of the March 15 revolution. Born as a peaceful protest movement for dignity and political reform, the Syrian uprising painfully and organically developed into a revolutionary war to liberate the country from the misrule of Bashar al-Assad’s fascist clique and dismantle his regime’s barbaric institutions.

Syrian democrats

Like all wars, this war in the final analysis is a class war. Suburban and rural (mostly Sunni) farmers, laborers, small merchants, and elements of big business fight to overthrow their enemies, the urban-based Alawite-dominated state apparatus, that apparat‘s junior partners — the Alawite, Sunni, and Christian bourgeoisies — as well as its Iranian, Iraqi, and Hezbollah enablers. Unfortunately, these enemies do not fight alone: educated professional urban Sunnis constitute the backbone of the civil service bureaucracy that keeps the regime running and some 15%-20% of the adult male Alawite population serve in the military-security services. Those who have nothing to lose find themselves in combat fighting those who have nothing to lose but their chains. The have-nots fight for freedom while the have-littles fight for fascism.

“Who do you feel best represents the interests and aspirations of the Syrian people?”

Income                         Regime  Opposition   Extremists
Less than 15,000 SYP       31%          37%          12%
15,000-25,000 SYP           33%          35%          15%
25,001-45,000 SYP           39%          38%          14%
More than 45,000 SYP       36%          37%          13%

Completed        Regime  Opposition Extremists
No Formal           33%          37%         13%
Primary               38%          32%         13%
Intermediate       35%          32%         14%
Secondary          31%          40%         11%
Higher                40%          38%         14%
Source: Orb International.

The anti-fascist democratic revolution that emerged out of the contradictions of Syria’s sect-class system has spawned a sect-class war that spread far from the city of Daraa where the uprising first gained traction to Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Kurdistan. The peoples of the whole region are now paying the price for:
1. The sins of Assad and his supporters.
2. The revolution’s inability to defeat and remove them from power.
3. The terrorist-creating policies of the U.S.-led so-called ‘Friends of Syria‘ who shamefully allowed themselves to be out-spent, out-gunned, out-maneuvered, and out-committed by Iran at every turn for more than three years because they prefer military stalemate as a means of engineering a negotiated settlement over an outright rebel victory.

These three factors have protracted Syria’s war of liberation and led to what Marx termed “the common ruin of the contending classes” – $144 billion in economic losses in a country whose 2011 GDP was $64 billion, 50% unemployment (90% in rebel-held areas), 50% in dire poverty, rampant inflation, polio outbreaks among children, and 9 million (almost half the population) displaced with 3 million living in camps abroad.

And there is no end in sight to this unfolding disaster.

The increasingly protracted nature of Syria’s anti-fascist war has transformed groundless optimism among the revolution’s supporters into its opposite: cynicism. Conversely, Assad is confident that his regime is no longer in danger of being overthrown. Both trends in both camps stem from the regime’s string of strategic military victories — in summer of 2013 at Qusayr, in fall of 2013 at Safira, in March 2014 at Yabroud, and in April 2014 at Qalamoun. However, military momentum alone cannot reveal who the victor and vanquished will ultimately be. Only by analyzing the strong and weak points that characterize each side and how those points have changed during the course of the war can reveal who can win and how.

Regime Strong Points:
o Firepower.
o Unity and united, effective leadership.
o Allies abroad — few, but fully committed.
o Victory means successfully defending territories (cities, main roads; some 40% of the country) that are its strongholds.
o Resources (financial, economic, infrastructure [electricity]).
o Fights along interior lines.
o Majority of minorities’ support, minority of majority support.

Regime Weak Points:
o Unjust cause.
o Popular support based on opportunism (‘who will win? who will pay me?’), not conviction.
o Manpower.
o Fighters motivated more by fear, circumstance, and money than ideology or conviction.
o Parasitic dependence on foreign allies.
o Oil-producing and agricultural areas, the principal sources of hard currency and economic viability of the pre-2011 regime, no longer under regime control.
o Gulf state investment and tourism that fueled the Bashar-era economic boom gone for the foreseeable future.

Rebel Strong Points:
o Just cause.
o Fighters motivated by conviction and religious fervor (‘God is on my side‘) rather than opportunism.
o Manpower.
o Popular support based on conviction, not opportunism.

Rebel Weak Points:
o Firepower.
o Disunity and divided, ineffective leadership(s).
o Allies abroad — many, but non-committal.
o Victory means launching successful offensives to oust regime from its well-defended strongholds where it retains significant popular support.
o No coherent economic or cultural policies, liberated areas poorly governed.
o No resources despite wresting oil-producing and agricultural areas from regime’s grip.
o Dependent on non-committal allies abroad for aid and support.
o Fights along exterior lines.
o Minority of minorities’ support, majority of majority’s support.

A ‘New’ Regime, Born Fighting the Revolution

The old regime fought to crush the uprising and disintegrated amid defections of its troops and officials throughout 2011 and 2012 thereby creating a ‘new’ regime. Regime 2.0 is a leaner, meaner, defection-free killing machine whose war-fighting is characterized by strategic vision, methodical prioritization, and a disciplined command structure steady enough to guide campaigns over weeks and months to victory. Whereas regime 1.0 fought to obliterate the uprising in all areas at once, regime 2.0 picks and chooses its offensives and seeks to buy ever-more time to gain ever-more advantages over the rebels. Its military strategy is to hold onto the cities, highways, and airbases — even at the cost of leaving the suburbs and the countryside to the rebels — while organizing a series of strategic offensives to clear the core of the country (stretching from Daraa to Aleppo) of rebel fighters, forcing them to the periphery and reducing their status from major threat to manageable nuisance. Its political strategy is to prevent opposition forces from gaining popularity. This is accomplished through two mechanisms: make the price of defying the regime so high that no city or large town will dare join the revolution of its own volition and make governance (let alone good governance) in liberated areas impossible. The emergence of free Syrian territories where the hungry are fed, the sick are cared for, and where law and order prevail without a massive apparatus of torture and terror would threaten the reluctant, grudging support people give the regime as a lesser or necessary evil. This two-fold political strategy is why the regime relentlessly attacks targets of no military value like hospitals, bakeries, and schools while airstrikes on the Islamic State (formerly ISIS/ISL, known pejoratively as Daesh) have been rare (see below) up until recently.


The post-revolution Assad regime is significantly weaker than its 2011 precursor despite its seeming immunity to defections and lower threshold for victory. Its chemical weapons arsenal is gone. Less than 50% of the country is under its control. Most importantly, having permanently lost control over the wheat, cotton, and oil-producing rural north and east, the regime is no longer economically viable. Regime 2.0 is a militarily robust failed state in the making. Wheat production has fallen dramatically, centralized state purchase of grain from farmers has given way to localized transactions, inflation is spiraling out of control, industry has ground to a halt, children begging on the streets of the capital Damascus is now commonplace, oil production (one of the few sources of hard currency for the regime) has all but ended, Syria has become a net oil importer even as its oil consumption has fallen, and widespread food shortages afflict rich and poor alike.






“Which of the following have you had a shortage of in the last six months?”

Income                    Electricity  Food   Water
Less than 15,000 SYP    74%      56%     40%
15,000-25,000 SYP       76%      49%     44%
25,001-45,000 SYP       74%      51%     42%
More than 45,000 SYP  78%      47%     43%
Source: Orb International.

The post-revolution regime is not only living on borrowed time but borrowed money — mainly Iran’s. However, it is unlikely that Damascus will ever repay even a fraction of the over $10 billion and counting Tehran spent saving Syrian national socialism from reaching a tipping point of no return during the armed rebellion’s peak in late 2012 and early 2013. Iran’s rulers will learn the hard way what France, Britain, and the U.S. discovered in the 20th century: that colonies and protectorates are expensive and prohibitively so from the standpoint of return on investment.
One new feature of the post-revolution regime is that Assad no longer wields absolute power. He answers to not only Iran and Hezbollah but to his generals (who now enjoy some command autonomy unlike before the revolution) as well as to the newly created Iranian/Hezbollah-trained National Defense Forces (NDF). Assad’s diminished authority became evident during Geneva 2 in two respects: first, Russia compelled the regime to attend talks it spent years rejecting in under 24 hours and second, the NDF continued shelling Homs despite the deal Assad made with the United Nations (UN) to evacuate civilians from besieged neighborhoods. During the evacuation conducted under UN supervision, Homs governor Talal al Barazi screamed at NDF members for abusing and interrogating evacuees in plain sight: “What’s wrong with you? This is the United Nations. We have been getting calls from Geneva!” Similarly, when the 2,000 heroes of Homs were evacuated in May 2014, UN personnel were placed on each vehicle filled with rebels to prevent the NDF from shelling their exit and sabotaging the deal which included a prisoner exchange.

So while Assad’s reliance on a few but firm allies is a source of strength against the rebels whose allies are many but mealy-mouthed, it has also become a weakness since his regime has grown parasitically and permanently dependent on their financial, military, and political life support. Russia exercised its growing leverage over the embattled regime by forcing Assad to surrender the bulk of his prized chemical weapons stockpile in order to avoid airstrikes, the threat of which not only halted the regime’s barrel bombing but also triggered a spike in defections. A U.S.-led air campaign would have tipped the battlefield balance towards the rebels for as long as it lasted and both Russia and Iran were determined to avoid the possibility of the regime’s irrevocable disintegration and defeat. The price of the regime’s survival was Assad’s sarin supply and his foreign overlords were happy to pay it.

Thus, Assad has fallen from his 2011 position as Führer to that of a governor of an Iranian semi-protectorate rife with quasi-independent militias that often victimize regime supporters. Just as the Assad family uses their Alawite co-religionists as human shields for their rule, Iran uses Syria for its operations against Israel. In a historic shift from Hafez’s policy of keeping his side of the Golan Heights quiet, Bashar and Hezbollah recently launched token attacks on Israel from the Golan, triggering Israeli retaliation. In this way, Iran opened a second (insignificant) front against Israel during Israel’s 2014 attack on another recipient of Iran’s aid, Hamas, and demonstrated that Syrian independence is increasingly a thing of the past.

A Second Revolution or War of Mutual Exhaustion?

Can the post-revolution Assad regime be overthrown? Could a second revolution break out behind regime lines and finish what Daraa started? Such an uprising is an objective possibility given the simmering, casualty-driven discontent among Alawites but highly unlikely because it would have to take the form of an armed uprising from the outset since a peaceful uprising against a fascist regime at war is impossible. As long as the war — which suppresses dissension among the regime’s remaining supporters — continues with virtually unlimited foreign economic, political, and military support from abroad, the regime can avoid another revolution, that is, “the violent break-up of [an] obsolete political superstructure, the contradiction between which and the new relations of production caused its collapse at a certain moment” (Lenin) that often follows when a political superstructure’s economic basis has ceased to exist.

Without a second revolution to topple the post-2011 regime, Syria’s revolutionary war of liberation has become a protracted struggle of attrition, a contest of mutual exhaustion and mutual annihilation. The strategic equilibrium or stalemate between regime and rebel forces will persist until one side either organizes a series of decisive offensives to gain total victory or collapses out of exhaustion brought about by its own internal contradictions.

The fact that a second revolution or war of quick decision to defeat the regime is not an immediate prospect is not necessarily grounds for despair. The regime enjoys material superiority over the revolution but not moral superiority. The unjust and reactionary nature of the regime and its war aims gives rise to its critical weakness: its manpower shortage. Not enough Syrians are willing to die for fascism; those that are willing tend to either be morally rotten criminals eager to get a salary for raping, looting, and torturing their countrymen or conscriptswho fear imprisonment and torture for draft-dodging. These criminal and cowardly elements have difficulty sustaining close combat with rebels who fight not for personal gain but out of conviction that their cause is just and that God is on their side. So few Syrians are motivated to charge into battle and lay down their lives for tyranny and oppression that some 10,000 Iranian, Hezbollah, and Iraqi sectarian Shia militiamen were imported to serve as the regime’s shock troops. Once sectarian killing spread to Iraq, Iraqi Shia militiamen returned home to kill Sunnis, creating a manpower shortage for Hezbollah whose idea of ‘resisting‘ Israel is slaughtering Syrians and starving Palestinians on Assad’s behalf.

The moral bankruptcy of the regime finds expression in its war-fighting methods: heavy on firepower, light on manpower (save for strategically critical offensives to regain lost ground). Because the regime cannot afford to lose manpower in head-to-head combat with rebel forces, it demolishes neighborhoods, resorts to barrel bomb terrorism, starves women and children, uses Scud missiles and sarin, and signs starvation truces and evacuation deals with rebel neighborhoods instead of invading them and ousting the fighters. Free Aleppo was forcibly de-populated using these methods with the aim of destroying rebel manpower by depriving them of their popular base of support. Without the people standing firmly behind and among them, isolated rebels can be defeated with superior firepower.

Unity: A Do-or-Die Task for the Revolution

To fight — much less win — a war with these characteristics, the key strategic imperative for the rebels is not to seize and hold territory (as in conventional war) but to annihilate enemy manpower (as in guerrilla war). Territory changes hands day to day, month to month with every skirmish and battle, but available manpower ultimately determines who is capable of controlling what.

However, to take advantage of the regime’s key weakness (manpower) and turn the tide of the war once more in their favor, the rebels must overcome their key weakness — lack of unity (and related to this, poor leadership).

Rebel disunity has been the single most powerful weapon in Assad’s arsenal. Time and again, this disunity has allowed the regime to capitalize on its strong points and minimize its weak points while simultaneously neutralizing rebel strong points and magnifying rebel weak points. Consider the rebel response to each regime offensive since June 2013:

o At Qusayr, some reinforcements came from as far as Aleppo to fight the offensive head-on. The regime’s superior firepower and massed manpower overwhelmed the city’s defenders. Shock swept opposition circles even though the battle, as a head-on clash between a stronger and a weaker force, could not have ended in anything other than a regime victory. A counter-offensive elsewhere to relieve pressure from Qusayr or weaken the regime’s attack was never an option because rebels were too divided.

o At Safira, there was no rebel effort to resist or counter the regime’s advance. It fell without a fight, giving the regime a beach head to push rebel forces out of Aleppo. Colonel Abdul-Jabbar al-Aqidi resigned from his position on the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Supreme Military Council to protest the rebels’ failure to lift a finger to defend the city.

o At Yabroud and Qalamoun, rebel forces massed to resist the regime’s offensive. Knowing that head-on, open-ended resistance would end in defeat and the total destruction of their forces, they followed Mao Tse-Tung’s principles for guerrilla operations: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.” They avoided annihilation in decisive engagements but continually fought as they fell back in orderly fashion from the regime’s months-long advances, preserving themselves for future guerrilla operations in Qalamoun once the regime declared ‘victory’ and re-deployed its forces elsewhere. However, Jabhat al-Nusra refused to follow the rebels’ plan of action, executing rebels who (correctly) retreated and accusing their brigades of taking bribes from foreign powers in exchange for losing the battle on purpose.

Daesh’s ‘liberation‘ of al-Raqqa from its liberators in 2013 was due principally not to collusion with the regime but to this same rebel disunity. Each faction and brigade was confronted and eliminated one by one by Baghdadi’s gangs who then applied this strategic template all over northern Syria in 2013, opportunistically isolating and picking off rival groups, commanders, and towns even as they collaborated with these same groups in anti-regime operations such as the seizure of Menagh airbase. They took advantage of the frictions between the secular-democratic FSA and the Islamist-democratic factions by relentlessly targeting the former while avoiding or collaborating with the latter. This fed Islamists’ illusions that Daesh were merely misguided Muslim brothers and fellow mujahideen rather than bearded Bashars and Kharijites.

The revolution within the revolution in January 2014 to overthrow Daesh in northern Syria was similarly stunted by rebel disunity. Factions that later coalesced as the Syrian Revolutionary Front led by Jamal Marouf and the Army of Mujahideen sprang into battle while the constituent elements of the Islamic Front were incoherent, some fighting, others avoiding combat. Ahrar al-Sham, whose commanders’ mutilations by Daesh provoked denunciation by the first Friday protest of 2014, initially held its fire. Its leader Hassan Abboud, who also heads the Islamic Front’s political office, offered to mediate with Daesh even as popular fury exploded against them in demonstrations and armed attacks. Only after the Daesh launched wave after wave of suicide attacks against Islamic Front’s Liwa al-Tawhid while rejecting mediation offers for weeks did the Islamic Front as a whole begin to fight them. This divided response undermined rebels’ momentum and allowed Daesh to retreat under fire from much of Aleppo province and bloodlessly evacuate Idlib and regroup in al-Raqqa and in eastern Syria/western Iraq. Failing to finish Daesh off gave them time to lick their wounds and prepare for a ferocious wave of victorious offensives in Deir Ezzor, western Iraq, and Kurdish areas of Syria that culminated in the declaration of a Caliphate in summer of 2014.

Overcoming disunity is the most important task facing rebel (and political opposition) forces. Without uniting those who can be united, it is impossible to pursue a common policy, impossible to respond coherently either to the regime or Daesh, impossible to forge effective leadership, and therefore all but impossible to win the war.

Only great unity can lead to great victory.

Rebel cooperation remains largely local and occasionally regional rather than national. After three years, rebels still have not established a unified command or even set up a national operations room. Doing so is essential for rebels to move beyond winning short-term tactical victories like the Kessab offensive in early 2014 to long-term strategic victories, the accumulation of which will destroy the regime. The regime’s national scope and operation along interior lines allow it to neutralize and eventually reverse locally and regionally limited rebel forces operating along exterior lines by quickly redeploying its forces and assets from one front to another. The only way rebel forces can counter this (since they fight along exterior lines) is through greater coordination, so when the regime makes a concerted effort to gain ground in Aleppo, rebels counter-attack in Latakia (for example). Until cross-front and cross-regional coordination develops, rebel tactical victories will continue to be nullified by the regime’s ability to win strategic victories and only by accumulating strategic victories can rebels regain the initiative in the war.

Amalgamating rebel forces — some 150,000 men divided among a handful of big coalitions and countless smaller formations — into a single army with a clearchain of command is probably impossible. Nonetheless, a national operations room to assemble an operationally albeit not ideologically cohesive coalition of coalitions could work if rebel commanders are willing to surrender some autonomy for the sake of greater coherence as a national fighting force. However, the experience of the Islamic Front shows how difficult uniting is in practice even with good faith commitment by constituent groups. As with any politically heterogeneous opposition formation, the moment the front takes a position or an action that is controversial, it leads to fitna which, more often than not, causes counterproductive splits. Army of Islam commander Zahran Alloush’s decision to suspend his army’s participation in the Islamic Front in response to the Islamic Front’s Revolutionary Covenant is but one example of this tendency.

Rebel unity is more urgent than ever given the second great schism among forces fighting the regime: the war Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra launched in July 2014 to smash the FSA and carve out territorially contiguous theocratic emirates in Idlib and Daraa. Jabhat al-Nusra’s aggression was precipitated by ever-greater U.S. involvement on the side of the opposition and Daesh’s newly declared Caliphate, both of which threatened the Al-Qaeda project in Syria from different directions.

The Balance of Forces: Shifts and Underlying Trends

The single most important thing to understand about Syria today is that the pre-2011 political setup is gone forever. No force on Earth can reverse that. The battle now is over what will replace the old arrangements, over what new political superstructures and class relations will prevail. The outcome of this fight is nearly impossible to foresee even in general terms because there are so many warring factions:
o The regime (NDF, Syrian Arab Army).
o Foreign regime allies (Hezbollah, Iraqi and other foreign Shia militias).
o The rebels (FSA, Islamic Front, Syrian Revolutionary Front, independent Islamist and secular brigades).
o Foreign rebel allies (small groups such as Jamaat Ahadun Ahad or the Chechens who defected from Daesh).
o Jabhat al-Nusra.
o Daesh.
o The Kurds (the People’s Protection Units [YPG], a militia dominated by the secular-democratic and socialist Democratic Union Party [PYD]).

Some of the aims and interests of these actors overlap; others contradict each other irreconcilably. The regime, its foreign allies, and Daesh have benefited from the rebels’ failure to reconcile their serious differences with YPG and PYD for the purpose of uniting to smash the three enemies that menace them. Even worse, throughout 2013 Islamist and FSA brigades fought alongside Daesh as Daesh attacked the YPG. This strengthened the rebels’ enemy, alienated and weakened a potential ally, and deepened Syria’s fragmentation.

syria atmap2014-8aug1

As of Aug. 1, 2014

Since the regime and Daesh both focused almost all of their attacks on rebel forces in early/mid 2014 instead of on each other (Daesh-regime clashes constituted only 5% of the total battles fought in Syria in June 2014, for example), many activists and even the Syrian National Coalition of Revolution and Opposition Forces claimed that the two were partners or co-conspirators. What appeared to be conspiracy was really the result of strategic calculation born of a particular conjecture. For its part, the regime knew that the demographics of its strongholds made Daesh rule there all but impossible and prioritized fighting the rebels as the only force that could potentially generate enough broad-based support to supplant and displace it. Meanwhile, Daesh opportunistically preyed on the weakest actors on the political landscape — the scattered, divided rebel movement and the beleaguered institutions of bourgeois-democratic governance that arose in rebel-held areas. Riven by the competing priorities of fighting versus governing as well as internal dissension, rebel and opposition forces were no match for the united and better-led Daesh as they eliminated rebel factions first before suppressing civilian activism in al-Raqqa as well as Manbij, the birth place of Syria’s first labor union.

“Who do you feel best represents the interests and aspirations of the Syrian people?”
Region Regime Opposition Extremists
Total 37% 35% 13%
Damascus 59% 17% 0%
Tartus 92% 2% 0%
Latakia 71% 15% 1%
Idlib 4% 61% 24%
Aleppo 36% 36% 19%
Daraa 25% 43% 12%
Rural Damascus 31% 49% 5%
Homs 36% 32% 1%
Hama 31% 35% 18%
Suweida 37% 8% 0%
al-Hasaka 37% 32% 25%
al-Raqqa 12% 47% 37%
Source: Orb International.

The defeat of rebel forces has not given way to peace between Daesh and the regime but to an even more barbaric war between them, a war the regime is losing and will lose in northern and eastern Syria. This proves that Daesh was never a puppet nor a partner of the regime (or a creation of Iran, for that matter).


Since the battle of Qusayr in June 2013, the regime’s military momentum has masked the loss of its social and economic foundations. The old regime’s power peaked in 2011 and the post-revolution regime’s power — fueled by massive foreign support — peaked in mid 2014, checked by its own internal contradictions and by the growing power of Daesh.

The rebels’ military momentum lasted from 2011 until they entered Aleppo in mid 2012 and liberated al-Raqqa in early 2013, at which point their internal contradictions impeded further progress. Lack of unity, organization, and effective leadership prevented the rebels from securing the socio-economic foundations upon which to erect the kind of sturdy bourgeois-democratic state necessary to govern liberated areas and simultaneously wage a protracted and victorious revolutionary war.

This failure by the rebels led directly to the Daesh’s disastrous success. The revolution is the negation of the regime and Daesh is the negation of the revolution.

By seizing income-producing assets like oil fields, Daesh not only acquired the economic basis for a state even more fascistic than the Assad regime but — more importantly — prevented the rebels from becoming a self-financing force. This put the rebels at the mercy of the foreign agendas of foreign states who are the only social forces with access to the necessary money, arms, and support to sustain the civilian and military opposition. So unlike both the rebels and the regime, Daesh is economically viable and financially self-sustaining. This has profound implications:
1. No outside power has leverage over Daesh.
2. Daesh’s economic underpinnings mean that its inherent war-fighting capabilities are significantly greater than the inherent capabilities of both the regime and the rebels. “Endless money forms the sinews of war.” (Cicero)
3. Daesh’s rule will endure because its economic foundations are secure; the political monstrosity it is building unfortunately does not contradict but corresponds with its economic base.

Assad’s crumbling fascist edifice was torn down in much of northern and eastern Syria only for a more savage and firmer one to be erected in its place.

However, Daesh is not invincible; it has strong and weak points (or in other words, contradictions) just as its enemies do. Daesh’s weak points are less serious than those of rebel and regime forces and it has far more strong points than weak points compared to both of them which is why Daesh can beat them (and its Iraqi enemies) on many fronts simultaneously.

Daesh Strong Points:
o Unity and united, effective leadership.
o Allies abroad — none, save for a tiny proportion of the ummah.
o Fighters highly motivated by religious zealotry.
o Victory means defending its fortified strongholds (35% of the country).
o Fights along interior lines.
o Coherent governance and unified cultural and economic policies.
o Resources (financial, economic) — controls Syria’s agricultural areas and themajority of the oil-producing areas.
o Enough popular and tribal support for a stable regime.
o Continued inability of the regime and rebels to turn their weak points into strong points.

Daesh Weak Points:
o Unjust cause.
o Popular support based on rebel inability to provide security and stabilit yrather than ideological agreement.
o Manpower.
o High proportion (perhaps a majority) of its fighters are non-Syrians.

Daesh’s power has yet to peak and may not do so until U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office. Its leaders are careful not to over-extend their 20,000-man army, wise enough to attack only targets that have significant strategic value in situations where Daesh’s victory is not a gamble, and shrewd enough to mix force with diplomacy to secure the support of tribes in eastern Syria and Western Iraq. If Daesh’s leadership is more united, effective, and competent than that of the rebels, it because they they have been waging war uninterruptedly for almost a decade, long before protests broke out in Syria in 2011. Rebels and oppositionists must close this experience gap if they want a fighting chance at taking their country back from Baghdadi’s gangs.
The fate of the Syrian revolution was once in the hands of doggedly non-violent grassroots activists, but today it is in the hands of men with guns and the foreign powers that back them. Now, war is the main form of struggle and army is the main form of organization. The armies of three sides — the regime, the rebels, and Daesh — are locked in a war of attrition and the side that is exhausted materially and spiritually first, loses.

The contradiction between the regime’s military superiority and social infirmity will not last forever, nor will it end soon; it is a process of unravelling that will take years rather than months. Militarily inferior rebel and opposition forces are, in many respects, in worse shape socially than the regime as small numbers of (unpaid) rebels quit the battlefield for the sake of giving their families some normalcy after three long years of hellish war and as increasingly depopulated neighborhoods buckle and submit rather than starve. At the same time, the only neighborhoods that have become safe for regime forces are those totally emptied of both people and rebels such as Homs; true submission on a mass scale continues to elude the regime despite its barbaric tactics.

As the increasingly exhausted regime fights to exhaust its opponents, the regime’s forces are slowly being ground to dust by a combination of its own unjust nature, aims, and methods, its manpower shortage, the rising power of Daesh, the determination of millions of revolutionary Syrians to persevere in their opposition to Assad despite unimaginable suffering, and the gradual escalation of U.S. support for rebel and opposition forces. If the rebels (and Kurds) can unite, they can take advantage of these factors that work in their favor to break the war’s strategic stalemate which will force the regime to choose between holding one city or military base at the expense of losing another. As retreats and defeats mount, Assad’s rump regime will fragment and conditions will ripen both for palace coups and for a second revolution.

What’s Left?

I became active on the left when I was in my mid-teens. The main issue, as I recall, was ‘capital punishment’. The Victorian State Government was determined to proceed with the hanging of Ronald Ryan in 1966. I have vague memory of attending May Day rallies prior to that, with my dad, but it was around the age of 15 that my self-conscious direction moved to the left. Other issues were the civil rights movement in the US and apartheid in South Africa. The scenes from both countries on TV filled me with anger – not just at what was happening but at the hypocrisy of the societies that did nothing to stop it other than words. Within a year or two, the war in Vietnam came to dominate and I distributed banned literature at high school against the US and its allies in Vietnam. I had dabbled in some Marxist readings prior to going to university in 1969 and, caught up in the spirit of 1968, I was determined to be active at uni.

I couldn’t have imagined in 1969 that my activism, and embracing a Maoist position, would lead to several arrests on demonstrations, suspension from university, loss of my Education Department Studentship and in 1972 imprisonment for contempt of court at Pentridge Gaol with two comrades. 1972 was a bad year to be gaoled because the movement generally was in decline. It never recovered its spirit, or its politics. With some notable exceptions, people wandered off into the ALP or, like me, became nasty dogmatists akin to zombies mindlessly doing what they knew best; torn between feeling self-fulfilment but deeply frustrated at the same time, sensing, but not comprehending, what had gone wrong. Essentially, those of us who failed to keep thinking became ‘religious’. This remains a huge problem today, as so many adopt the ‘correct line’ on issues without any need to investigate first. They found the formula of Truth long ago; everything can be slotted into it. The resultant disconnect from reality is palpable – and bizarre.

The years 1968 to 1971 stand out, to me, as a time when the Left existed loudly and clearly, through struggle against authority outside and within the established Left. What passes for left-wing today strikes me as antithetical to the rebellious optimistic outlook we had back then, and antithetical to the desire to argue and debate and, most importantly, to oppose fascist regimes and stand in solidarity with those fighting them. Slogans such as “Not in my name” or “Hands of Syria” have nothing in common with the sadly evergreen “Smash Fascism!” An ‘Anti-imperialism’ that results in objective support for tyrannies that oppress people struggling for democracy is no different than the anti-imperialism of Mussolini and Gaddafi.

What’s Left? can be defined best by values and historical experience, and of course theory.

To me, key elements are:

– Support for Progress. I use a capital ‘P’ in order to stress that there is such a thing. It happens through human imagination, ingenuity and engineering. As Engels pointed out long ago, humans are distinguished from all other animals in that we can create what we can imagine. Harmony with Nature – Sustainability – have never been part of the left’s lexicon. Marxists believe in unleashing the productive forces through the further mastery of Nature and through freeing research and production from the social relations imposed by capital. This is the opposite of the ‘green’ world outlook.

– Internationalism: ‘they’ are ‘us’. Be ‘they’ oppressed people resisting a fascist regime in Syria or asylum seekers reaching our shores in unauthorised boats. Or ‘foreign workers’ arriving lawfully on special visae. In a globalising world, humanity is one, as never before.

– Democracy. The left understands that democracy has come about through struggles against ruling classes over centuries, resulting in rights such as universal suffrage. We take so much for granted in bourgeois democracies. It was 800 years ago that a king was forced to seal a charter with rebellious barons to agree to be subject to law and not above it. Yet today even in developed democracies, we still have to resist encroachments on liberty, be they in the form of Section 18C that allows the state to decide what is offensive or the new anti-terror security laws that open the way to a police state.

– Last but not least, the working out of a left-wing position has always come through struggle against its opposite: the pseudo-left position. This was true when I was first active in the Vietnam solidarity movement, when we struggled against the old Left Establishment that tried to constrain our youthful rebellion and to gear the movement to serve ALP electoral objectives, and it is true today, in the new century. To the media and to most people, the pseudo-left is ‘the Left’. Which explains why that kind of left is nothing more than an unpopular set of sects. I find the pseudo-left dull in its predictability and undialectical thinking. That is why I have used the terrific slogan from Paris 1968 as the sub-heading to my site: “Beneath the paving stones, the beach!” It was either going to be that one or “Reach for the stars!”

Feedback welcome.